In the centuries gone by, women in India had an insignificant role to play in the field of sports and it was only the men who, like fireflies, brought moments of glory, shining once in a while in some international events. However, there has been a sea change in the past fifty to sixty years as more and more Indian women seem to be hogging the limelight in the world of sports. Athletics, till the 1970s, seemed to be out of reach for the girls as there were hardly any facilities at any level for them.
It was for the first time in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games that an Indian woman athlete came into public attention. Kamaljeet Sandhu won the gold medal in the 400 metres final to become the first-ever Indian woman to win any Asian Games gold medal. Sandhu and India were fortunate to some degree for in the finals Kamaljeet seemed destined to finish with a silver medal but the Chinese girl ahead of her tripped and fell before breasting the tape and a golden chapter opened in the history of Indian women athletes.
The 400 metres race is one of the most gruelling races run on the tracks. Somewhere between the 250-metre and 300-metre mark, the heart seems to enter into a spasm and one has to overcome those vital moments to get a fresh supply of adrenalin to complete the race. Strangely enough, however, for inexplicable reasons, Indian athletes over the years have performed better over this quarter mile than any other distance on the tracks.
To begin, it was Milkha Singh who ran the race of his life at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and it was only one hundredth of a second that separated him from a podium finish. In the 1982 Asian Games, MD Valsamma became only the second Indian woman to win an individual gold medal when she finished the 400 metres hurdle in an Asian record time of 58.47 seconds. In later years, PT Usha brought laurels for the country in several international events but could never win any gold medal in any global track competition.
Suddenly, a new name has cropped up in India’s athletic world that seems to carry many hopes for the future. It is sudden because in just fifteen months, a teenager named Hima Das has matured from a little-known village girl to India’s first ever woman athlete to win an individual gold on the tracks in any global meet. Hima’s moment of glory came at the recently-concluded World Junior Athletic Championships at Tampere, Finland.
It is not only Hima who was unknown, even the village and town from where she hails had a similar status. Born in village Kadhulimari, in the Dhing town of Assam’s Nagaon district, Hima had her early schooling at the Dhing Public School. Initially, Hima saw her career in football as she played the game with the boys of her school but a physical training instructor named Shamshul Haque advised her to move into athletics. Hima was fortunate in getting the support of the Nagaon Sports’ Association and proved true to their faith reposed in her by winning two gold medals at the inter-district meet.